(ז) אַתָּה הוּא ה’ הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר בָּחַרְתָּ בְּאַבְרָם וְהוֹצֵאתוֹ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים וְשַׂמְתָּ שְּׁמוֹ אַבְרָהָם:
(ח) וּמָצָאתָ אֶת לְבָבוֹ נֶאֱמָן לְפָנֶיךָ וְכָרוֹת עִמּוֹ הַבְּרִית לָתֵת אֶת אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי הַחִתִּי הָאֱמֹרִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי וְהַגִּרְגָּשִׁי לָתֵת לְזַרְעוֹ וַתָּקֶם אֶת דְּבָרֶיךָ כִּי צַדִּיק אָתָּה:
You are the Lord God, Who chose Abram, took him out of Ur of the Chaldees and made his name Abraham. And You found his heart faithful before You, and You made the covenant with him to give the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, and the Girgashites, to give to his seed, and You kept Your words, for You are righteous.
Chapter nine of Nechemiah contains praise of God, including His choice of Abraham and making a covenant with him to give Eretz Yisrael to him and his descendants.
Creating the covenant is described thus: God chose Abraham, and in addition, He “found his heart faithful” before Him and then “You made the covenant.” The covenant referred to is the Covenant Between the Pieces [Genesis 15:7-21], in which God promised the Land to Abraham.
Our questions are:
1) What is the meaning of this covenant?
2) Why does the verse repeat “to give” (“to give the land of the Canaanites … to give to his seed…”)?
An Explanation of the Covenant Between the Pieces
On that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abraham, saying, “To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates River.” [Bereishit (Genesis) 15:18]
In fact, the Divine promise of the Land to our father Abraham is mentioned in the Torah a number of times; however, this verse speaks not only of the promise of the Land, but of God’s covenant to give the Land to Abraham. Ramban notes that the wording of the verse “I have given” indicates that the Land had already been given to Abraham and to his descendants, the Nation of Israel.
What is the meaning of a Divine covenant? After all, God is omnipotent, and doubtless He will fulfill His promises. It seems that from the perspective of the Divine promise, there is no uncertainty that it will be kept, but the question and the unknown factor is whether the Israelites will be worthy of receiving the Land. The covenant is an expression of the deep connection between God and His nation which is realized with the establishment of the covenant. “Pacḥad Yitzḥak” defines “covenant” as the deepest possible connection between two apparently separate entities. Thus, after making a covenant with Abraham to give the Land to him and his descendants, no sin of the Israelites can expropriate their eternal inheritance. Indeed, God told Abraham: “And I will give you and your seed after you the Land of your sojournings, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be to them for a God,” [Bereishit 17:8] and Ramban explains the meaning of “an everlasting possession” to be that it is eternally given and irrevocable.
All the above is contained within the words “To your seed I have given.” However, since the Land will actually be given to Israel in the future, we may ask why the verse uses the past tense. Rashi comments that “God’s word is considered as accomplished fact,” that is, as we noted above, God will surely fulfill His promises, however, if fulfillment is dependent upon human behavior, it is not guaranteed. Once the Divine promise takes the force of a covenant, its fulfillment is a certainty, regardless of human behavior. In such cases, “God’s word is considered as accomplished fact.” Thus, God did not say to Abraham “I will give the Land to your seed,” but “I have given,” despite the fact that the Israelites had yet to settle the Land.
Maharal of Prague, in his work Gevurot haShem, offers a lengthy explanation of the Covenant Between the Pieces and of Abraham’s question to God “Lord God, how will I know that I will inherit it?” [Bereishit 15:8] Maharal suggests that the covenant reveals the internal quality of Israel, which is unchangeable:
“כי ישראל יש להם מעלה מיוחדת, כי ישראל מעלתם שהם נבדלים מן הפחיתות לגמרי, והחטא שמקבלים אין זה רק מקרה ודבר שהוא מקרה בלבד אפשר הסתלקות. ולפיכך אין ראוי להעביר ישראל בשביל החטא, כיון שבעצם הם טהורים ואין החטא להם בעצם והוא דבר מקרה ואין דבר שהוא במקרה מבטל עצם ישראל”
For Israel has a lofty trait, they are completely separated from deprecation, and should they sin, it is only not an inherent trait, but merely a chance occurrence, and chance occurrences are removable. Therefore, Israel cannot be detached from its special status as a result of its sins, since the nation is essentially pure, and its sins are a chance matter, which cannot cancel the essence of Israel.
Explanation of the Verse in Nechemiah
The verses from Nechemiah appear at the end of the prayer “ויברך דוד” (“David Blessed”), which concludes the “verses of praise” (p’sukei d’zimra) of the morning prayers. Above we raised the question of why the verse repeats “to give.” The first refers to the Land, the second to giving Eretz Yisrael to Abraham’s descendants. Why the duplication?
Malbim explains that the first use of the verb “give” refers to God’s covenantal promise “to give the land of the Canaanites,” etc., while the second refers to the promise that the Nation of Israel will in fact enter and inherit the Land.
An additional explanation appears in the Ḥassidic work Torat haMaggid, which sheds light on both sections of the verse:
“אמרתי כבר בשם המגיד (רבי שלמה מסקאהל) שאמר מו”ר ר’ דוב זלה”ה שדקדק בפסוק (נחמיה ט, ח) וכרות עמו הברית לתת את ארץ הכנעני החתי וגו’ לתת לזרעו, למה כתב פעמיים “לתת”. ואמר שהם שתי הבטחות, א) לתת את ארץ הכנעני, ב) לתת אותה לזרעו. ופירוש דבריו, דכתיב (קהלת ב, יג) כיתרון האור מן החושך, שעיקר מעלת הצדיקים ההולכים בדרך ה’, היא דוקא בגלל החושך המצוי בעולם, כי אם לא היתה בחירת טוב ורע בעולם לא היו צדיקים זוכים להתעלות המדרגות בקדושה יתירה, משום שבגלל הרשעים שאינם מתקנים עצמם זוכה הצדיק המתקן חלקו וחלק חברו ליקח גם חלק חברו. וזו הכוונה: לתת את ארץ הכנעני שתהיה בחירת טוב ורע בעולם, והבטחה שניה: לתת לזרעו שיכנעו וישברו לפני צדיקי הדור”
I have already mentioned the words of the Maggid (Rabbi Shlomo of Skahl), who quoted our Master Rabbi Dov, noting that the verse in Nechemiah uses the word “give” twice; he explained that there are two promises: the first to give the Land of the Canaanites, etc., the second to give it to Abraham’s descendants. The explanation of this comment is as follows: the verse in Koheles (Ecclesiastes) [2:13] refers to “The advantage of light over darkness.” The great quality of the righteous is in walking in God’s ways despite the darkness found in the world, for if there were no choice between good and evil in the world, the righteous would be unable to achieve the highest level of holiness. It is because of the evil doers who do not rectify themselves that the righteous are able to rectify their own portion and the portion of their fellows, and to receive their fellows’ portion as well. This is the intention of the words “To give the land of the Canaanites,” etc., that there be the choice between good and evil in the world; the second promise “To give to his seed” is that they submit to the righteous of the generation.
In other words, in addition to making the covenant with Abraham concerning the Eretz Yisrael, there is another level which details how to serve God in general and within Eretz Yisrael specifically. The seven Canaanite nations which occupied Eretz Yisrael when the Children of Israel left Egypt represent the forces of evil and of impurity in the world. Apparently, we may question the place of these forces in the world. Why did God create the forces of impurity? A shallow analysis leads to the conclusion that the world would be a better place without these forces. Yet the verse in Koheles (Ecclesiastes) teaches that light can be fully appreciated only in contrast to darkness. The fact that there is darkness enhances our appreciation of light. So it is with man’s toil within the world – the good is appreciated in contrast to the forces of evil and impurity which exist within the world.
Were Eretz Yisrael acquired easily, without serious effort, all of human toil in the world would become useless. Am Yisrael (The Nation of Israel) is in the world in order to serve God, to add light and rectification.
Thus, Eretz Yisrael is the land which offers the choice between good and evil; it can be “The land of the Canaanites” (who represent the depths of degradation [Vayikra (Leviticus) 18:3]), while on the other hand, God promised the Land to Am Yisrael, that is, Am Yisrael will be able to choose good and thereby receive Eretz Yisrael in the full positive meaning of the name.
We have learned about the basic and unique trait of Am Yisrael, which is expressed in the covenant God made with the nation to give them the Holy Land, Eretz Yisrael. We explained that the choice of Israel is not dependent upon any variable, not even the sins of Israel, since the nation is inherently pure and holy. This is the meaning of the covenant with Israel and answers the first question we raised.
We learned as well that the goal of the Am Yisrael is to rectify the world, “כי מציון תצא תורה” (“For out of Zion Torah will come forth”) [Isaiah 2:3] to the entire world. The seven Canaanite nations indicate that this rectification encompasses all dimensions of existence.
Ḥessed l’Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Azulai [1570-1643[) writes that every Jew living in Eretz Yisrael is righteous. How so? The Torah warns that the Land spits out evildoers [Vayikra (Leviticus) 18:28], thus anyone whom the Land has not spit out must be inwardly and essentially righteous. Rabbi Azulai’s comment supports our contention that Eretz Yisrael reveals the inner sanctity of every Jew.